In an offseason that featured 13 teams changing head coaches, the Boston Celtics managed to shock the entire league by inking Brad Stevens, the wunderkind coach of Butler University, to a six-year, $22 million deal.
The 36-year-old Stevens won 77.2 percent of his games with the Bulldogs and made the National Championship Game twice but now faces the task of revitalizing the NBA’s most successful franchise in the wake of the stunning Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade with the Brooklyn Nets.
Stevens, who stayed with Butler despite significant interest from UCLA and Illinois, will now have the opportunity to prove that his unselfish, defense-first brand of basketball can work as well in the pros as it did in Division I collegiate basketball. With a six-year deal, he’ll certainly have the time to implement his system.
But even though Stevens has received universal praise for his intelligence and meticulous approach to the game, there are going to be some unavoidable issues that he will face in his first year with the Celtics. In addition to general transition problems, Stevens is inheriting a flawed Boston squad that is nowhere near championship caliber.
Now that the dust has settled on Stevens’ signing and Boston’s roster appears set to start the 2013-14 campaign, let’s look at some of the major challenges the man filling Doc Rivers’ shoes will face in his debut season.
Game-Planning for Super Stars
Stevens had to game-plan for quality players in the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10, but the teams in those conferences were more based on depth and specific systems rather than individual star talent.
Even in the NCAA tournament, Butler was not playing against the caliber of player that Stevens will be facing with Boston. Nolan Smith and Kemba Walker were elite college players, but neither of them have exactly set the league on fire since being drafted.
To put it simply, Stevens does not have much experience gearing his defense to cover a single star player, something that he is going to have to do regularly in the Eastern Conference.
Not only are LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony going to make life difficult for the rebuilding Celtics in 2013-14, but players like Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Deron Williams and Dwyane Wade are all versatile players who can give opposing defenses nightmares as well.
The Celts have plenty of quality defenders, but with the exception of Avery Bradley, they lack a singular stopper who can take an opposing team’s best scorer completely out of the game. This means that they will rely upon team-based schemes in order to make the LeBrons and Melos of the world work hard for their points and settle for inefficient shots.
Stevens showed during his time at Butler that he is capable of adapting to opponents, but he is going to be facing a new task in preparing for opponents who have one superstar talent responsible for the brunt of their offense on a night-in and night-out basis.
This problem is less about Stevens and more about Boston’s roster, but this is a team that, as currently constructed, is going to seriously struggle to consistently score 95-plus points per game.
In 2012-13 with Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics ranked just 18th in the league in scoring at 96.5 points per game, and they did not add any pieces this offseason that are nearly capable of replacing the production of Pierce and KG.
While the return of Rajon Rondo should certainly help the C’s ailing offense, his teams have never been elite offensive units, even as Rondo has managed to put up gaudy assist totals.
As for Stevens, he has always been a defensive-minded coach and one who is willing to play a slower, more physical style of basketball that used the whole 35 seconds of the college shot clock.
In his six seasons with the Bulldogs, Steven’s teams ranked in the top 100 in points per game just once. They came in at 71st in 2010-11, averaging 72.8 points.
The Celtics do not have a player on their roster with the experience of being a team’s go-to scorer, and while Jeff Green and Rondo possess plenty of talent, neither are used to taking 15-20 shots per game and having the offense revolve around them.
Stevens has always been good at spreading around the scoring burden. But with a team full of Boston players that will be shouldering a heavier scoring load this season than they are accustomed to, he is going to need to find multiple consistent contributors, both in the starting lineup and off the bench, which is something that Rivers struggled to do in 2012-13.
Surviving the Rigors of an 82-Game Season
The difficulty in transitioning from the college schedule to the far more rigorous NBA schedule is often discussed with draft prospects, as they are often worn-down, both physically and mentally, by March and April of their rookie seasons.
Even though Butler routinely made the NCAA tournament under Stevens, they were playing just over 30 games per year, a far cry from the NBA’s 82-game season.
From 2009-2011, when Butler made the National Championship Game twice, they played in 38 games over about six months during both years. That’s an impressive total for a college squad, but it is still one that pales in comparison to that of the NBA.
As pointed out by Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, only eight other coaches have made the leap from college head coach straight to NBA head coach in the last 20 years, so there is not a lot of precedent to examine.
Rick Pitino did well with the New York Knicks, but struggled in Boston, posting a combined record of 55-87 in his first two seasons there before resigning midway through his fourth campaign.
In a year where Boston could go through some very rough stretches, Stevens is going to have to be patient and show some serious resilience as he slogs through what could be a very trying inaugural season with the Celtics.
Getting Rondo’s Ear and Approval
While there is still the possibility that Boston deals Rondo and embraces a true bottom-out rebuild, he is currently the team’s franchise player, and this season could live or die based on Stevens' ability to get Rondo to buy into his system.
The notoriously prickly Rondo has only played for Rivers throughout his seven years in the league, and he has always had either Pierce or KG around to serve as a stabilizing veteran presence when his temper reared its head.
Now, the 27-year-old point guard will be relied upon to be one of Boston’s vocal leaders and will face even more responsibility in 2013-14 than he ever has before in his career.
If that wasn’t enough, he is also coming off of an ACL tear that cost him the final 44 games of the 2012-13 regular season as well as the playoffs.
Since being hired, Stevens has made a solid effort to connect with Rondo. According to Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe, the coach even visited Rondo at his home in Louisville back in July.
Fortunately, Rondo has also attempted to approach the hiring with a “completely open mind”, Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe reports.
But while that is all well and good in the offseason, it will be different when the two are working together everyday, especially if Boston is struggling out of the gate with so much roster turnover.
While Stevens’ team-first identity meshes with Boston’s old “Ubuntu” motto, he is a much different coach than Rivers in terms of his belief in analytics, which is going to take some getting used to from Rondo.
Realistically, this Celtics team is going to need a few lucky breaks just to make the playoffs. But if they want a shot at any kind of success in 2013-14, it will hinge on Rondo and Stevens proving to be a compatible tandem that can lead Boston into its next era of basketball.
Besides the faster overall pace of the game, suddenly dealing with 15 huge egos on a nightly basis usually hurts college coaches as they transition to the pros.
In college basketball, the coach is usually the star of the team. And while NBA coaches have plenty of visibility, they are not subject to the same national media scrutiny as their players are.
Butler had talented players under Stevens in Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, but none of them were huge celebrities by any stretch of the imagination.
Though the Celtics do not have a roster filled with All-Stars, they have a slew of players with starting experience who may have trouble accepting a bench role or taking less shots for the "good of the team."
To make matters worse, since Boston is rebuilding, Stevens will need to really work on instilling the team-first mindset into his players. It will be easy for them to start playing only for their own statistics in an effort to boost their trade value or improve their chances of landing a lucrative, long-term deal once they hit free agency.
Failing to mesh with players and manage egos kept talented college coaches like Tim Floyd and Pitino from succeeding in the NBA, and it could be a problem for a young coach like Stevens in his first year with Boston as well.
With a reputation as a humble man and a hard-worker, it is unlikely that Stevens’ own ego gets in the way, but he is going to need to make sure that his age does not keep him from getting his message through.
Solving Logjams at the 2 and 4
Despite receiving plenty of depth in the Pierce-Garnett deal, Boston still has a largely uneven roster with glaring holes at center and backup point guard. Furthermore, they also have some serious logjams at the 2-guard and power forward positions.
While a report from CSNNE’s A. Sherrod Blakely has indicated that Boston would like to ship out Jordan Crawford, he remains on the roster alongside Bradley, Courtney Lee and MarShon Brooks.
All four of those guards are better suited at the 2 and have struggled at times with handling the ball and looking to pass instead of score.
The problem for Stevens will be that the team has different incentives for giving each of them playing time.
Lee and Crawford are coming off of poor seasons but could be valuable trade assets going forward if they can rebound. The Celtics also need to see exactly what they have in Brooks and Bradley in order to decide whether they will be tendering any contract extensions.
The same can be said for the 4 spot, where Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger and Kris Humphries will all be vying for heavy minutes. Bass and Humphries should be on the trade block soon, while Sully could be the C’s future at power forward if he can stay healthy.
Add to that the fact that rookie Kelly Olynyk might be better suited at the 4 long-term and that Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green are both combo forwards, and the situation becomes even murkier.
Stevens has had experience managing minutes on deep rosters before, but never one with quite as many positional logjams as the 2013-14 Celtics. With legitimate reasons for each player to see the court, it is going to take time for him to find the right combinations that help Boston both succeed in the short-term and position itself for the future.